August 24, 2014, Ordinary 21A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church
Living in the Body
Two years ago today I underwent a colonoscopy that led to a diagnosis of rectal cancer. (Lest this become a point of distraction throughout the rest of the sermon, I should point out that after a year of radiation treatment, surgery, and chemotherapy, I have been “clean” for a little over a year now.)
Cancer is a bit of a headline-grabber, but I’ve also had some other maladies and physical difficulties in my lifetime. I’m somewhat prone to kidney stones. My right knee has not been right since my childhood. Perhaps oddest of all is that I have, in the traditional sense of the word, no balance. About twenty-two years ago, either due to a severe inner ear infection or a slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, I suffered damage to some key nerves in my inner ear system. It’s complicated enough that I have trouble describing it, but the easiest way to describe the effect is to say that the signals coming from the right side say I’m moving in a straight line, but the signals from my left side tell me I’m veering left, and my brain can’t reconcile the mixed signals. After some weeks of rehab I can get around and stay upright using mostly my eyes and my feet to keep my balance, but sometimes I have to wait a little longer when a movie is over, for the lights to come back on.
All of this is to say that I have some experience with my body not working so well. One of the things I’ve experienced on those occasions is that when one part of the body isn’t right, it isn’t just that part of the body that is affected. No matter how well-targeted modern chemotherapy might be, my whole body felt lousy while I was being treated with it. And if you’ve had kidney stones before, I don’t need to tell you that your body doesn’t want anything to do with anything until that thing is gone. For all of those strange maladies I’ve had, though, there are times when the one thing that can make my whole body want to shut down and quit more than anything else I can think of is an ingrown toenail. That tiny, almost forgotten appendage can make me feel miserable all over when it gets uncomfortable.
It’s hard to believe that Paul didn’t know something about this when he introduced the metaphor of the church as body into his letters, including here in the twelfth chapter of Romans. It’s a metaphor he used in more than one letter, emphasizing different aspects of its meaning in different letters to different churches. In writing to the Corinthians, a much more fractious and troublesome congregation, Paul emphasizes the insufficiency of any one part of the body on its own, in such rhetorical questions as “If the whole body were an eye, where is the hearing?” and facetious exaggerations such as the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.” [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:14-26]
Paul’s Roman audience, while experiencing some mistrust in its membership, isn’t nearly so difficult as the Corinth church, so Paul takes a slightly different and less drawn-out tack with his metaphor of the body. One example is his use of “body” as a point of discussion on multiple levels. Initially Paul addresses the individual believers in Rome with the injunction to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. Here the focus is on individual bodies. Each believer is charged with living – not merely thinking or believing or meditating, but physically, bodily living – in a way that the very being of each individual is worthy of the holiness of God.
I don’t know about you, but that is a daunting ideal. For one thing, it is far more than checking off a list of do’s and don’ts could possibly hope to accomplish. It is living not merely good, not even merely pure. It is living holy. And to me that’s seriously daunting.
But Paul is not through with body metaphors. In verses four and five Paul makes the jump from individual bodies to the collective body, sometimes known as the church – or, as it is also known, the Body of Christ.
In a short form of his longer discourse in 1 Corinthians, Paul reinforces the idea that the church, as “body of Christ,” is assembled and organized in a way similar to the human body, in that each member of the body has a specific function to perform. Just as the eye is good for seeing, and the hand for grabbing, and the lungs for breathing, so each member of the body of Christ is gifted with a particular ability or gift needed to enable the body of Christ to live. Verses six through eight are a far from comprehensive list of the gifts individual members of the body of Christ bring to the body; ministers minster, preachers preach, givers give, compassionate people bring cheer, and so on. Paul could have gone on much farther, and did so in letters both to Corinth and Galatia.
But Paul also slips in another dimension of body membership, in verse 5: “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another”. Here is that interdependence of each of us on one another writ large. The eye may be good at seeing, the hand at grabbing, and so on, but the hand will have no luck in grabbing that coffee mug first thing in the morning if the eye doesn’t do its job in spotting it, or the legs and feet can’t get the body across the room to where that mug of coffee is waiting to be picked up and consumed. Each part of the body has a job to do, but it can’t do that job without the help of other members of the body.
And so it is in the body of Christ, the church. The preacher can’t preach without a congregation. (Or I suppose a preacher could preach without a congregation, but then people look at you funny on the street corner.) The gifts each member brings to the body only work in cooperation with each other. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of individual bodies, something decidedly less than a church.
But wait. Even here Paul is pushing the metaphor just a little bit further. We can talk about members and gifts here in our own individual church, but Paul also challenges us to think even more broadly. The body of Christ is not limited to the members of Meherrin Presbyterian Church, or of First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where I come from, or any one individual church. The body of Christ is all of us churches, all together.
Now to me, this is where things get really complicated. There are churches out there that, frankly, do things I find appalling. There are Christians out there, fellow members of the body of Christ, that make me frankly want to go and hide when they start flapping their gums in dishonest or hateful ways. And yet, and yet, and yet “we, who are many, are one body in Christ”, and Paul doesn’t seem to have any “out” for us here. The body of Christ has members in Israel and in Gaza. The body of Christ has members in Ukraine and in Russia. The body of Christ has members in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the St. Louis County Police Department (as much as my mind cannot comprehend this).
How does this happen, if we are all one body? How do we end up so far apart, so willing to oppress, so at each other’s throats?
Part of the answer is in verse three, I think. Paul, in what is an easy part of the passage to miss, instructs his readers “not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” in accordance with what faith God has assigned to us. Here is where things get rather self-indicting. My job is at least in part not to think too much of myself because I have the gift of being a preacher, or of being a cancer survivor (so far), or of being white, or male, or middle-aged, or a hybrid driver or an introvert or any number of other attributes that I might be guilty of elevating as an object of pride or a means to exalt myself above others. Each one of you might come with a similar or different set of “gifts” that could, if not careful, become an excuse to “think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think”. Rather than to exalt ourselves and our attributes too much, our task is to “think with sober judgment” in seeing what gifts we bring to the Body, and what gifts we rely upon others to bring, and what gifts we need others and their gifts to help us bring to the Body.
To be clear, “sober judgment” is not an excuse to think too little of ourselves either. It is not our place to belittle the gifts we are given or to claim that they are somehow not important to the Body. Sometimes “sober judgment” means stepping forward when nobody is expecting us to do so, and bringing our gifts to the Body that perhaps no one else has seen in us. It might sometimes mean that we step back and let another take up a task that matches to their gifts more readily than ours.
Whatever it means, it is a daunting task. Perhaps even an impossible task, unless we have taken the command in verse two to heart.
Our first call is nothing less than to “be transformed”. And not just any old kind of transformation. Be very clear here; our call is to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”.
Our ability to present our own bodies as a “living sacrifice”, our ability to be members of the Body of Christ here in Meherrin or anywhere in the world, hinges on this transformation. Our living in the Body depends on the renewing of our minds.
Up to this point in the letter Paul has been trying to teach the Romans (as he understood it) a myriad of ideas about the law, and its susceptibility to sin; the grace of God and its sole power to defeat sin and to bring salvation to us; and now here is the key to living in that grace, to being “more than conquerors” living in the love of God from which nothing can separate us, as Paul wrote in Chapter 8.
You see, there are certain things a renewed mind cannot do. A renewed mind cannot live in fear. It certainly cannot wallow in the fear and suspicion of those who are Other, who are somehow Not Us. A renewed mind cannot see itself as superior because of accidents of birth or ability to check off a list of do’s and don’ts. A renewed mind will never assume that wealth equals righteousness, or that one country is any more special to God than any other, or that our way of doing church is the only way of doing church.
A renewed mind, a mind utterly transforming the way we think and live, discerns the body of Christ equally in a city slum or a shack in the woods. A renewed mind discerns the pain suffered by the oppressed, the despair and anguish of the poor and forgotten, the sins of pride of the privileged and elite, and weeps for all of them.
And perhaps hardest of all, a renewed mind is not something we can do. Note that Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, not “be transformed by renewing your mind. “ It doesn’t happen of our own initiative; we can’t just “change our minds” by ourselves. Only in turning away from our own willfulness and control can our minds be renewed by the same saving, loving, transforming grace that delivers us out of sin and restores us into full relationship with God. We don’t want to give up our way of seeing the world, of dividing the world into Us and Them; but a mind submitted fully to the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit learns to see the world through the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then, only then, do we really start to live as anything at all like the Body of Christ. Let your mind be renewed, and the Body will follow.
For the renewing of our minds, Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Church’s One Foundation (PH442)
Take My Life and Let It Be (PH341)
Blest Be the Tie That Binds (PH438)